Much Ado About Nothing review by Calysta Morgan

*****stars

I was hoping that Artefact Theatre Co.’s Much Ado About Nothing would be a rollicking good night out, as their previous production, The Importance of Being Earnest was a highly enjoyable romp. At one point, when Benedick (Mark Yeates) attempts to ‘casually’ strike up a conversation with the audience whilst eavesdropping on other conversations, he asked “did you see the Bell Shakespeare production?” I did: and this version certainly gives it a run for its money.

The first good sign that your evening is going to be an enjoyable one, is that the Company has transformed the black box of St Martin’s Theatre’s Irene Mitchel Studio into something of a garden party. Not only do the audience get to relax under the strings of ‘hipster’ lights and have a bevvy or two, but the cast are also out there having dust ups, bust ups, chat ups, sing-alongs, and a steady stream of durries and booze too. Much of the stage space is astroturf and pavers, sandwiched between the audience like we’re next-door neighbours.  It’s immensely inviting, very immersive, and things flow so naturally that we’re absolutely transported into the narrative by our voyeuristic positioning. Plus, Stage Manager/Props co-ordinator John Lally has very helpfully left a Wheelie bin there for all the empties.

A large contributor to the engagement and emotion of the play was the use of music, provided by an exceptionally talented group of performers, often moving between acting and playing (or should that be playing and playing perhaps?). Featuring an exuberant Andy Song (Balthazar/Watchman), a multi-talented Reuben Morgan (Sexton/George Seacole), the vivacious Joanna Halliday (Ursula), and the confident Ella Lawry (Margaret), I wonder if audiences will really realise just how much skill was going into this aspect of the production. Halliday very determinedly wove intricate violin harmonies around melodic lines, adding a fullness to the sound. Brandishing a guitar as she meandered happily through the space, Lawry never dropped a beat, nor, amazingly, smacked into a set piece or performer. The aptly named Song was a joy to behold on djembe, also managing to anchor the rhythm section whilst being highly animated at the same time. Morgan was a stand-out in an already strong ensemble, using extended techniques like harmonics on the cello, and then swapping to playing the violin like a guitar – like it’s absolutely normal to do either of those things. This group were not mere background noise: their folksy, skilful and animated playing was utterly central to the flow and action of the production. Other performers including Louis Reed (Claudio), Sarah Oliver (Hero) and in a surprise cameo in the bows, Francis Greenslade (Leonato) also played instruments at various points, adding to the feel that we are really witnessing a genuine backyard ‘gath’. It’s also the first time I haven’t wanted to punch something whilst being subjected to the Lumineers’ much-used ‘Ho Hey’: woven throughout the show, this version was subtle, joyous, and added a layer of narrative at key points. The deft weaving of music in general actually contributed a rather filmic sense to a number of scenes, with the musicians dropping down to an underscore at times, and being full focus at others. Musical Direction by Alec Steedman, who also contributed some original works to the set list, was absolutely top-notch: not something I expected to be saying in a play review.

This production of Much Ado About Nothing serves to show us how timeless Shakespeare can be. Whether the creative choice is to faithfully replicate the original, or to recontextualise it and produce an anachronistically apt version, the play stands up to various conceptions. Some excellent research and creative vision clearly went into this version, which works just as well when set in Australia with smartphones, beer cans, hi-vis and laddish behaviour. Love is depicted through active wear and a protein shake, and shame is something we share via devices. Solidarity is a secret (and ridiculous) handshake, and #sickburns are timeless, wherever, whoever (or whenever) you are. Full credit goes to the Creatives: Director Matthew Cox, Production Designer Jacqui Day, Producer Jen McKinnon, Assistant Producer Sunni Cooper, Lighting Designer Hugh Stephens, and the aforementioned MD Alec Steedman and Stage/Props manager John Lally for setting up a strong vision, and absolutely smashing it for six-and-out into the neighbour’s yard. Solid research seems to have gone into the staging (allowing for both ‘plebs’ and more seasoned theatre-goers to all enjoy the show), more than ably backed up with slick lighting, realistic set design, well-rehearsed prop movement, and spot-on costuming. Men in uniform? Check. Men in high vis? Check. Men in active wear? Check. Men in short shorts? Check. No need to check your #thirst at the door, as the potential for male objectification here nicely balances out the condemnation female characters undergo.

Shakespearean works are full of plays on words, and peppered with bawdy humour. Much delight and care was taken to draw these lines out, and on the whole, the ensemble were generally good at delivering both the Shakespearean banter and the recontextualization of the lines with clarity. Physical gags added much to the capacity for the audience to follow what was going on. I overheard another audience member say we play “catch-up” when consuming Shakespeare, as to an extent it’s another language. It’s easy to understand Benedick’s (Mark Yates) “and yet I am well” as a disinterest in partnering up, when phone in hand, he describes desirable female attributes and then dismisses them with a determined left ‘swipe’ on the screen. The positioning of Leonato (Francis Greenslade) and Don Pedro (Tim Constantine) as ‘important men’ is reinforced by the fact that a photographer is on hand to capture the moment Don Pedro arrives at Leonato’s – we see this sort of thing all the time on the news and implicitly understand what it means in our era of media dominance and status obsession.

Benedick has the lion’s share of soliloquies, and in Mark Yeates’ hands, the result is nothing less than hilarious. Like some sort of irrepressible imp, Yeates has an elasticity in his movement and a cheekiness in his face, and yet the capability to inhabit his character and speak the speech trippingly from the tongue. If for no other reason, go and see the show just to watch Yeates. I for one am immensely glad he founded Artefact, as he clearly needs a way to showcase his talents. Benedick’s sparring partner, the acid-tongued Beatrice (Cazz Bainbridge) is no stranger to working with Yeates, and the two bounce well off each other. Bainbridge plays Beatrice with distain rather than vicious acerbity, and this works very well in the context of the about-face the character makes down the track.

Francis Greenslade as Leonato brings previous experience as benevolent father/authority figures to Act I’s celebrations and loutish behaviour.  Likewise, he is very much Mad As Hell in Act II, turning into a blustering, outraged spitfire of a slut-shaming dad, who can’t believe his precious daughter would do such a thing, but other good men told him so, so it must be the case. Will the Kraken be released when the deception is revealed though? You’ll have to come and see for yourself. With one of the more dramatic emotional ranges to deal with in the show, Greenslade is dependable and enjoyable to watch. As his sister Antonia, Kaarin Fairfax has regrettably little time on stage. Like the relatively widely known Greenslade, Fairfax is a seasoned jewel in the crown of this generally young and unsung cast. Other productions have also played with the original concept of ‘brother Antonio’ being a female character instead. Fairfax’s confidence and skill nicely evens up the erstwhile battle of the sexes, and she pairs well with Greenslade in this regard too.

I always feel a little sorry for the actors playing Claudio and Hero, as the characters are both such milksops in comparison with other more vibrantly painted players in the play. Louis Reed as Claudio fits the bill of a “lack-beard”, with his fresh boyishness seeming not yet old enough to be in the armed forces, having his heart broken, or being in a play performed outside of a high school arena. An unexpected highlight of Reed’s performance though, was Act II’s emotional vocal solo for Hero. And in Hero, the Jane Bennet of the play, we have a lovely, pure and sweet girl, who lacks the fire and ice of others and yet is still put through the wringer. Sarah Oliver delivered Hero with the requisite agreeableness, and just a dash of spirit when she and her maids plot to turn Beatrice’s mind towards Benedick.

Brothers from another mother, Tim Constantine is charming as Don Pedro, whilst Thomas Henry Jones hides his humour under a blanket of bastardry as Don John (not to be confused with Benedick’s blanket, which is entirely full of humour). With the easy charisma of someone like Rodger Corser or perhaps a slightly older Hemsworth brother, Constantine exudes both power and affability. With a cheery ‘oi oi!’ as another can is cracked open, it’s easy to see how he could command a unit which includes the perpetually ridiculous Conrad (a casual Charly Thorn, on the lookout for the next bit of entertainment to be had) and Borachio (a cheeky Christian Taylor, who is much entertained by Margaret). Jones on the other hand, is neither charming nor easy as Don John, his natural British accent channelling a low-key villain in the style of the Lion King’s Scar or Harry Potter’s Snape. An interesting side note is that Jones is the only one not to don a mask during a party scene which sees Minions doing shots, and Spiderman sipping a bevvy through a curly straw – he is indeed a “plain-dealing villain” in all senses.

Annabelle Tudor had an unexpectedly mellifluous speaking voice, lending a gravitas and grace to her brief time as Friar Francis. Lacking gravitas entirely were Ross Dywer as Dogberry and Justin Edbrooke as Verges though. Both were utterly absurd, encapsulating the sort of work Artefact seems to put into many the more minor characters in its productions, where every possible bit of humour is drawn out and presented, like a pie to the face. Dwyer’s outfit is somehow a combination of Warwick Capper and Mary Poppins, and it will be a miracle if Edbrooke survives the show’s season without giving himself a concussion.

There were so many brilliant elements to this production, that it would be both impossible to cover them all, and it would be far too much of a spoiler-fest. There was however, one big disappointment for this production: that it appears not to be so sold out it’s bursting at its cushion seams. Artefact punch above their weight by doing big personalities in small spaces very well, and their production of Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare as a skitshow – entirely accessible regardless of your prior interaction with the Bard or dad’s backyard bar. They do comedy with ease, and have an eye for locating shows in time and place through clever production values. Both cast and creatives deserve a toast for their work, and audiences should have no hesitation in seeking out the hidden gem of St Martin’s Theatre to secure their seats to such a joyous and well-crafted show.

set: 5/5

costumes: 5/5

Sound: 5/5

lighting: 5/5

performances: 5/5

stage management: 5/5

direction: 5/5

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